23 August 2023
The hidden crisis of deforestation in Bolivia
Forests and other natural ecosystems in Bolivia are being devastated by expanding soy plantations. But with a government focused on economic development and little pressure from consumers demanding deforestation-free products, the prospects for action seem remote.
By Stanislaw Czaplicki Cabezas
Deforestation rates in Bolivia have increased by 259% over the last eight years driven primarily by agricultural expansion. In 2022 alone, Bolivia lost almost 596,000 hectares of forest and had the third highest rate of primary forest loss after Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Of most concern is the expansion of soy plantations to meet growing demand for livestock feed.
Almost three quarters of recent deforestation has taken place in the eastern department of Santa Cruz, where most of Bolivia’s soy production is located. The region is also home to the Chiquitano, a dry forest named after the indigenous people that live there, and a rich biome that includes maned wolves, giant otters and armadillos. Almost 19% of deforestation in the Chiquitano is due to soy expansion.
New Trase data published in August shows that soy production in 2020 was linked to 77,090 ha of deforestation and conversion, increasing to 105,600 ha in 2021. The intensity of deforestation linked to soy expansion in Bolivia is much worse than in other South American countries. In 2021, 31.8 hectares of native vegetation were cleared for every thousand tonnes of soy produced in Bolivia; five times more than Paraguay, seven times more than Brazil and 30 times more than Argentina.
Understanding Bolivia’s deforestation problem
The most important reason is political. The Bolivian government is encouraging the expansion of soy plantations to meet growing export demand by creating a more favourable regulatory framework. For example, it has increased soy export quotas and changed the land assignment of forest areas to allow agriculture, as in the department of Beni. In 2022, the Bolivian government launched a programme to develop biofuels in which it is investing some US$700 million . This could greatly increase demand for soy, and potentially drive further deforestation and land conversion.
The Bolivian government has granted increasing numbers of permits to deforest land for soy production, and has retrospectively approved deforestation of land that was cleared without a permit (see figure). Illegal deforestation is rarely penalised, and when it is, the fines are negligible at US$0.2 per hectare compared to US$200 per hectare in other neighbouring countries.
Other reasons are economic. The soy sector in Bolivia is much less productive compared to other countries. In Bolivia, soy yields are around 2–2.3 tonnes per hectare – much less than 2.7–3.5 tonnes per hectare produced in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. This means that more land is needed to produce soy. Loans from Bolivian banks are readily available to finance the expansion of soy production. Land speculation also drives deforestation, in part to make up for the lower profits from soy production. Clearing land is used as a way for securing land tenure.
Ending deforestation in Bolivia
The prospects of action to end deforestation and transition to sustainable agriculture seem remote. Bolivia is not among the 145 countries that signed the Glasgow leaders' declaration on forests and land use to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. In August, Bolivia joined eight other South American countries in signing the Belém declaration on deforestation, but it opposed setting a joint target to achieve zero deforestation.
A country such as Brazil with its huge commodity exports to the EU and China is very much in the international spotlight over deforestation, especially in the Amazon. In contrast, land-locked Bolivia flies below the radar. Most Bolivian soy is consumed domestically, while Colombia and Peru are its two largest export markets. Little or no Bolivian soy is exported to the EU. This means that there is no significant supply chain pressure on Bolivian soy producers from the EU’s deforestation regulation to stop clearing forests for new soy plantations.
If Bolivia is to take action, its government needs to take three key steps. The first is to introduce an effective land-use governance system with a rigorous licensing process and appropriate sanctions for illegal deforestation. Secondly, it should establish a due diligence requirement for soy traders to demonstrate that they are not sourcing from illegally deforested areas. It should also encourage soy traders to commit to ambitious pledges to stop deforestation in their supply chains. Thirdly, it should ensure that policies such as on biofuels are delivered in a way that will not lead to further deforestation.
Stanislaw Czaplicki Cabezas is an independent environmental economist who has worked for the WWF, Climate Focus and the Food and Agriculture Organization.